Effort to return Lev Tahor children now involves three nations

Guatemala is receiving court documents and evidence from Ontario. U.S. authorities are also being kept in the loop.

The Toronto Star/March 19, 2014

By Tim Alamenciak

Panajachel, Guatemala -- The effort to bring six Lev Tahor children back from Guatemala includes Canadian and U.S. foreign affairs staff, in what the executive director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services calls an “extremely unique situation.”

Earlier this week, members of the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect used an attorney said to be one of the highest-priced in the area to fight for the chance to keep their children and stay in the country.

The family, which remains in Guatemala in defiance of an Ontario court order that called for the apprehension of 14 Lev Tahor children, appeared in court this week. The children were allowed to stay with their parents, but the family was told to have paperwork signed by officials at the Canadian embassy.

There were no representatives from Canada present at the hearing.

“The international aspects of the situation for the children in Guatemala have certainly complicated matters, however we are working with the Canadian and American foreign affairs staff to determine next steps in this extremely unique situation,” Stephen Doig, executive director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, wrote in an email.

Doig’s response marks the first substantive official statement on the measures being taken to return the children to Canada. He said the agency is providing Guatemalan authorities with copies of Ontario court orders and the evidence on which they were based.

He said the U.S. government is involved because, if successful, the return flight would probably have to fly through the United States.

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs has only said it is working with the Guatemalan government. An official in Guatemala’s ministry of immigration told the Star the family is under the surveillance of the national police.

The Lev Tahor family has twice appeared in court in Guatemala. The first judge ruled last week that the children could remain with their parents and noted problems in documents submitted by the Canadian embassy. The second judge, who interviewed the children, also ruled they were able to remain with their parents.

Child protection authorities in Quebec have documented allegations of physical abuse, underage marriage and substandard education within the sect. More than 200 members of Lev Tahor fled Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., in advance of a court order for the removal of 14 children.

The sect has categorically denied any allegations of abuse and maintains its members are being unfairly persecuted for their religious beliefs.

An Ontario court judge upheld the Quebec judgment in February, but placed a 30-day stay on his ruling to allow time for appeal. On the day that appeal was scheduled to be heard, it was discovered at least 12 children had left the country and the location of another two was unknown. Six children were apprehended in Trinidad and Tobago, including two girls from the family now in Guatemala, and two others were found in Calgary.

Fredy Arnoldo, one of the two lawyers representing the family, declined to comment specifically on the case Tuesday. Hugo del Aguila, the other lawyer on the case, is well-known in Solola, the regional capital, and one that a local member of the community says is a high-priced attorney.

The Canadian officials can take other measures for the return of the children, Arnoldo said, speaking generally. But even so, the legal system in Guatemala offers a special option to fight back known as amparo.

“If you are afraid of something that goes against human rights (you can file a writ of amparo),” said a local lawyer in Solola. She said the country is flooded with such claims, but that amparo has the ability to stop any legal process in its tracks if the claim is deemed legitimate.

Six children, their parents and sect member Yoil Weingarten are still staying at a small hotel on the outskirts of Panajachel, a tourist town on the shores of Lake Atitlan. A nearby open-air market provides them with fruits, vegetables and fish to satisfy the group’s kosher eating requirements.

It’s unclear what the outcome will be if the family does not get the paperwork signed by the embassy. A secretary at the Solola court, speaking with the Star, said they would be in violation of a Guatemalan court order and then subject to a criminal proceeding. Arnoldo would not disclose whether the family would go in person to the embassy in Guatemala City, if the requirement would be taken care of remotely or if the paperwork would be signed at all.

Under the United Nations Hague Convention, to which Guatemala is a signatory, countries have an obligation to return children who have been wrongfully removed from another country.

Nicholas Bala, a Queen’s University law professor who specializes in children’s law, said the Lev Tahor case is moving relatively quickly, saying Hague Convention cases in Canada can drag on for months, if not years.

He said it’s clear the judge in Guatemala found he did not have all the necessary information to make a decision Monday. He said it’s highly unlikely the family will get paperwork from the embassy allowing them to stay in the country.

“In fact, the embassy is going to provide contrary evidence, because presumably, the embassy has been on top of this,” he said.

Bala said it is a concern that the Lev Tahor members were allowed to keep their passports, given their past history of fleeing jurisdictions before court dates, but said it makes sense to allow the children to remain with their parents for now.

“Removing the children immediately from their parental care can be very intrusive,” he said. “Who would look after them? They don’t speak Spanish. It’s unlikely someone can be found quickly to care for them, other than their parents.”

With files from Jacques Gallant.

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